For New Year’s Luck, it’s Yankee Cornbread, Y’all

The source of the best corn bread ever.

Right now all those die-hard culinary history folk are no doubt out somewhere fashioning their long-handled cast iron nieuwjaarskoeken molds, used to make the crispy waffley wafers of the same name New York’s Dutch founders ate on New Year’s Day back when this was Nieuw-Amsterdam. (The dish, perhaps not surprisingly, later became a storebought cake, made of nieuwjaarskoeken-like layers.)

But if you’re like me, right now you’re pondering why you waited so damn long to try and figure out where to get sustainably grown, locally sourced blackeyed peas. (The answer is the Cayuga Pure Organics Greenmarket stand, at Union Square and 97th Street, tomorrow.) There are countless New Year’s Day food traditions from around the world celebrated in New York City — foodtimeline.org does a decent job of listing em all, most of which are designed to bring you wealth, prosperity and luck, or some combination thereof — but mine have always come from the South, as I’m one of many New Yorkers with roots below the Mason-Dixon.

In my family, North Carolinians by way of Louisiana and Mississippi, New Year’s Day custom demands blackeyed peas (prosperity) and collard greens (money), both often  made with pork (prosperity) which is eaten on New Year’s Day by just about every culture except most Muslims, Jews and Buddhists. (Some families combine them all with rice into Hoppin’ John, but we usually just used the pork to season two separate pots of beans and greens. Maybe some rice on the side. Hoppin’ John deconstructed, if you will.) In fact I feel the need to eat the two so intensely last year when I took the red eye on New Year’s Day to Los Angeles I ate blackeyed peas and collard greens out of a plastic tub at 5 a.m. in JFK.

But another key component of the January first meal was also cornbread, made with coarse-ground yellow corn in a cast-iron skillet in the Southern manner, meaning with almost no white flour and very little sugar. If if you wanted it sweet, well, you poured some molasses or cane sugar on top. Woo! While I’ve since grown to appreciate beans, greens and the rustic flavors and textures of ur-Southern cornbread — hell, I am even a fan of plain old corn pone, which is essentially cornmeal hockey pucks — as a kid I hated Southern cornbread, and as a result New Year’s Day breakfast and other meals with it were kind of a bummer. I mean, what 8-year-old wants dry, unsweetened cornmeal for dinner with mushy peas and wilted greens?

In fact it wasn’t until I scored a 1969 copy of the book Homeade Bread by the Food Editors of the Farm Journal (I think from the Salvation Army on Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill in maybe 2001) that I really realized what I had been missing out on. There, on page 136, was a recipe for “Golden Corn Bread,” with the note: “This is Yankee-style corn bread.” What that meant, in a nutshell, that cornmeal was ingredient number four, after a cup of flour and a quarter-cup of white sugar. Things most Southerners didn’t have much access to or much money to buy, way back in the day.

For those unfamiliar with the difference between the cornbreads of the East Coast, you’re lucky the current New York culinary milieu is all about comfort food. For southern-style, try the amazing cornbread at Peels on the Bowery, made by pastry chef par excellence Shuna Lydon. It’s incredibly rustic, barely sweet, earthy as hell, golden brown and mottled with orange hues, no doubt made from some of the better quality stone ground meals now sold around the country, including from Cayuga Pure.  For a version of a sweeter style, try the cornbread at Lowcountry in the West Village: Sweet and intensely moist with a light-blonde crumb, it’s almost a cornbread brownie.

The Farm Journal’s Yankee cornbread happily falls somewhere in the middle, I found after I made it in my cast iron skillet, seasoned for me by my father a few days before I first moved out of my parents’ house. I fell in love, and have made it ever since, sometimes using white cornmeal; or honey or molasses or cane sugar instead of white; sometimes using butter or bacon fat or lard instead of shortening; sometimes using yogurt instead of milk; and always using a cast iron skillet. It’s always awesome and in the spirit of the New Year, the recipe is below.

Golden Corn Bread

From Homeade Bread by the Food Editors of the Farm Journal, 1969; Doubleday & Company, Inc.

1 c. sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 c. sugar
4 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1 c. yellow cornmeal
2 eggs
1 c. milk
1/4 c. soft shortening

– Sift together into bowl flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Stir in cornmeal.
– In a small bowl beat eggs with fork; add milk and shortening. Add all at one time to cornmeal mixture. Stir with a fork until flour is just moistened. Even if batter is lumpy, do not stir any more.
– Pour into well-greased 9X9X2″ pan. Bake in hot oven (425 degrees) 30 to 25 minutes, or until done. Cut in squares and serve hot with butter.
Makes 9 servings.

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